Talking to your Students

By Valerie Kampmeier
Republished with permission from Music Teacher’s Helper

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When I was growing up, I often heard the words “No” and “Don’t” in piano lessons, and so when I came to teach, it was only natural to use them too. “Don’t use so much pedal,” “No, that’s not the right fingering”, and so on. It was a revelation to me when I first encountered Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey’s classic book “The Inner Game of Music”, and discovered a completely different way of working with others and myself.

Ed Pearlman recently touched on some interesting aspects of the student-teacher relationship concerning healthy boundaries. Another very important aspect of this rich and sensitive relationship is how we address our students. Is your choice of words important? Are you aware of the powerful effect your words may have?

Green and Gallwey’s book begins by outlining their theory that we all have a Self 1 and a Self 2— Self 1 is a learned series of responses that often manifest as an inner critical voice, while Self 2 is the natural, intuitive, playful self that we experienced as a child, and can still learn how to access. The book offers many ways to get in touch with Self 2, and shows how these approaches can be more effective in learning and teaching music than simply responding with Self 1.

For example, they advocate using awareness as a primary tool. In the previous example, rather than the afore-mentioned “Don’t use so much pedal”, what would be a more positive way of correcting the student’s problem? Learning what works takes practice. I would probably say something like, “Notice the difference the pedal makes to the sound. Let’s try this passage with and without pedal…. Now, does the music sound clearer changing every half note, or every whole note? How often would you like to change the pedal?” What I love about this approach, even though it takes more conscious effort, is that it assists the students to become more aware of their process, and eventually, to acquire the skills to teach themselves. Ultimately, my goal is to render myself superfluous.

Going a step further, I’ve noticed that many problems are created by teachers who make critical pronouncements about their students. Several years ago, I was coaching a singer on a French opera duet. We had worked together frequently, and I knew that her grasp of sung German and Italian was excellent, yet in this instance she was struggling with mastering the French, and was becoming increasingly despondent. I tried every trick I knew, and nothing seemed to help. Finally, she shared with me that many years previously a singing teacher had said to her, “You’ll never be any good at singing in French.” This belief was inhibiting her success as effectively as a curse from a fairy tale. Until she found a way to let go of it, it would be impossible for her to focus clearly enough to master the language. Letting go of negative beliefs is a rich topic that there is no room to cover here; however, you can find an article I wrote on the subject here.

You can do your part not to create or reinforce inhibiting negative beliefs by taking care to acknowledge your students’ strengths. That said, it is important to acknowledge effort, not just achievement. If playing an instrument is easy for Connor, it’s not very satisfying for him to receive compliments on his achievements. However, if his teacher notices when he has put in the extra effort— for example on an area he finds challenging— and mentions that in particular, that can be much more satisfying, and may encourage him to persevere with other areas in his life that don’t come easily.

This approach can work for more challenging students too. How about Hayley, still struggling to get to grips with a beginner’s piece? What can you say to encourage her that will ring true? Maybe highlight something else, for example, “I loved your improvisation today- it was so sensitive, and the way you used those colorful clusters throughout the piece was very effective.” Letting your students know specifically what you heard and noticed will boost their confidence.

Finally, beware of comparing your students to each other, or of talking about your students in front of them (for example, to their parents). It’s common sense, but remarkably easy to overlook. I can still remember squirming as a child, when my teachers talked over my head to my parents. Is there a way of addressing the child directly that would still be effective? Make them an active part of the discussion. Ask them for constructive feedback.

I’ve been working on noticing the words I use for many years now, and it’s been a remarkable and fruitful journey with great results. I’d love to hear about your experiences in this area too, so do feel free to comment below.

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